Urban decay is artistic, charming in back alleys

June 06, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

Baltimore's back alleys deserve a better reputation than they get.

Sure, alleys are menacing by night. They host rat rodeos after dark. They are shadowy, just plain scary.

But by daybreak, most of the fear-inducing qualities disappear. The main streets may be filled with traffic. Except for barking dogs, the alleys are quiet, often unhurried.

People who possess an appreciation for city alleys would have endorsed yesterday's Charles Village Garden Walk, an event that could be subtitled the back street shuffle. In this part of Baltimore, most of these city gardens can be reached from the place usually regarded as the domain of the trash collector, gas meter reader or fuel oil deliveryman.

Alley snoopers seemed to have a mini-convention walking around decaying garages (the old metal ones are the nastiest) and observing garden gates normally locked and bolted. For the garden curious, it was a day to beat privacy fences and brick walls.

It was not hard to see what fascinated Alfred Hitchcock and why he made the movie "Rear Window." There's a certain element of domestic privacy that alleys disrupt as they provide access (visual and otherwise) to a home's kitchen and back bedrooms.

There's an elegant confusion to a good alley. The paving is often mismatched and broken. It's discolored by oil leaks and the inevitable squashed rodent carcass.

There's no hiding rotting wood porches and threadbare awnings. Yet, with so much suspended in a state of decay, all the untidiness has a way of blending into a pleasant, almost attractive mass, a collage of roof tar, broken masonry, rusty storm windows, utility poles and shards of terra cotta drain pipes.

It's the sort of setting that looks commonplace in the city but wouldn't play well in new and manicured suburbs.

Flaking gray porch paint is to the urban alley what the pressure-treated lumber deck is to the 'burbs.

There's also trash. Despite the efforts of city sanitation crews, which deserve praise, some resident joker is always missing the trash collection or dumping stuff. No garbage can. Not even a plastic trash bag.

My alley observances and trash snooping have provided me a lot of social commentary. One impression that alley walking provides is that the country is addicted to buying disposable diapers, cartons of cat food, portable stereos, VCRs, vacuum cleaners and wine racks. Magazines and catalogs are also major components of the alley inventory.

There is also an alley army. There was a time when we'd have called these men (I've never noticed a woman) rag pickers. They root through garbage cans and dumpsters in search of aluminum cans, copper and metal parts.

They travel via supermarket carts.

And I've spotted harmless men who just hang out in alleys. I get the impression they live in institutions but are turned out on the streets early in the morning. They select a spot and seem to know all the regulars, chiefly the apartment house janitors.

Alleys are not places for the squeamish. There can be wretched smells that hang over these places, but sometimes Mother Nature sends the strongest odors. There can be overpowering invisible clouds of sweet grass scent, basswood tree perfume or decaying mulberries. Honeysuckle and alleys are naturals. In late August, the snowy white clematis runs up telephone poles.

And roses. Roses thrive in city alleys. The June-blooming climbers race up old porches and leap across arbors. They are masses of crimson, peach and yellow colors.

Roses can be very long lived, often outliving the person who planted them.

On the Charles Village walk, where there are some ancient rose beauties, I was reminded of one now nameless variety. It was delicate pink that grew in a shabby old terrace behind the Homewood Apartments in the 3000 block of N. Charles St. This bush thrives despite dumpsters, fuel oil intake pipes and a straightjacket of concrete. It was planted decades ago by Nathalie Merceret, a woman who carefully tended her little alley oasis.

Martha Dougherty, who now lives next door, cut one of its buds. Even though the original gardener is no longer in Charles Village, one of her roses has survived. It lives on as Miss Merceret's Rose.

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